Omar Khayyám’s subversive verses

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A book of verses beneath the bough
A jug of wine, a loaf of bread — and thou
Sing by my side in the lonely long grass,
Here in the meadow, our paradise found.

Happy Birthday to my man Omar Khayyám (1048–1131), the great Persian poet, scientist and mathematician. As a court scholar, he earned acclaim for important advances in astronomy, algebra and geometry.

Today, however, he is remembered mostly for The Rubáiyát, a collection of his quatrains — four-line poems that mocked conventional religion by extolling wine, women and song. His verses help remind us that medieval Muslim culture was far more enlightened and tolerant than modern people typically imagine. Khayyám’s hedonist ruminations reveal a sharp wit while raising profound theological questions.

When Allah mixed my clay, He knew full well
My future acts, and could each one foretell;
If I can only do what He designed,
Is it then just to punish me in hell?

I cannot help it — were it in my power,
I would forsake my sins this very hour,
Forsake the Rose, and bid the Vine good-bye,
Kiss my last kiss — if it were in my power.

But helpless pieces of the game He plays
Upon this checkerboard of nights and days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.

You to the Mosque, with howling hymn and prayer
I to the temple of the Vine repair
There are many ways to the one true God
I find him Here, but do you find him There?

Why would Allah give to zealots like you —
A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew —
Secrets he kept from far more learned men?
Well, what does it matter? Believe that, too!

Sweet is rose-ruddy wine in goblets gay,
And sweet are lute and harp and roundelay;
But for the zealot who disdains the cup,
’Tis sweet when he is twenty leagues away!

Think not that I have never tried your way
To heaven, you who pray and fast and pray:
Once I denied myself both love and wine —
Yea, wine and love — for a whole summer day.

The Koran! Well, come put me to the test —
Lovely old book in hideous error dressed —
Believe me, I can quote the scriptures, too,
The unbeliever knows his Koran best.

This is no way my learnèd life to use!
Tell me a better, then, that I may choose.
Shall I, for some remote imagined gain
My precious little hour of living lose?

Shall, I, with such a little hoard to spend,
Waste it to such unprofitable end?
Do as you please who think another way —
For me, the wine cup and a pretty friend.

Strange, is it not? that of the myriads who
Before us passed the door of Darkness through,
Not one returns to tell us of the Road,
Which to discover we must travel too.

History, politics, education, music, culture. Award-winning high school teacher, former principal. College instructor. Seahawks Diehard. Twitter: @brian_mrbmkz

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